Do you ever feel like you spend half your life in meetings, many of which could have been an email? You aren't alone.
Unnecessary meetings suck your time and energy and stop you from getting stuff done.
Meetings need a rethink.
This article sets out critical questions for meeting organisers and attendees so that when meetings have to happen the wellbeing and productivity needs of everyone are prioritised.
Let's make meetings better.
If You Are Calling the Meeting
1. Is this meeting needed?
Meetings should be a two-way exchange, for example, an opportunity for creative thinking, idea generation, discussion or problem-solving.
We should not use meetings for one-way communication; in other words, the organiser sharing information with the attendees. If you need to share information, pick a different medium, for example, record a short video.
But why shouldn't you use meetings for sharing information? Meetings are expensive and disruptive. You should be able to trust people to consume information from you in a more independent way.
Finally, if your reason for calling a meeting is 'because we have one every week', that's not good enough. Only call a meeting if you need to.
2. How long should the meeting be?
Parkinson's Law tells us tasks expand to fill the time allotted to them. Meetings are the best example of this. If you have a weekly one-hour meeting scheduled, and the agenda is light for one week, you'll still be in there for an hour.
Calculate how long the meeting needs to be, and don't round up to the nearest hour - round down and run your meeting efficiently.
Top tip: your calendar software sets meeting entries to one hour by default - you can change this. This video shows you how to do it in Outlook, and this video shows you how to do it in Google Calendar.
3. Who needs to be there, and what do they need?
How many times have you attended a meeting and reached the end thinking, 'I didn't need to be here'?
Think about who needs to attend your meeting. Once you have a list, consider the needs of the attendees. Be respectful of their time. Calendar software enables meeting organisers to check meeting attendees' availability before sending meeting requests, which is great but don't forget to factor in travel time if applicable.
If you have people with a physical disability attending the meeting, check all facilities are accessible. If you have neurodivergent colleagues coming, check the environment is right for them.
4. What goes on the agenda?
While agendas might sound formal and old school, they are still the best way to organise meetings.
Send out the agenda before the meeting - ideally a week in advance - so attendees know why they are attending and what they need to prepare. Sending the agenda in advance respects your attendees' time and will mean the meeting runs efficiently.
An agenda outlines the meeting's discussion topics; it also has some standard elements:
- Attendees and apologies (who is in attendance and who has apologised for their absence).
- Matters arising (an update on actions from the last meeting).
- Any other business ('AOB' - an opportunity to discuss items outside the main agenda).
- Date of next meeting (only set a date for another meeting if you need one).
An alternative format is to consider placing AOB at the start, so your attendees do not feel the things they want to bring are an afterthought. Another inclusive option is to co-create the agenda. This must happen before the meeting, though, and don't organise a meeting to organise a meeting! Thanks to Chloe on Twitter for these ideas.
You can also use the agenda to calculate how long the meeting will take. Include timings for each section, and use your mobile to check when a discussion is over-running. If the agenda tells you that you need 35 minutes, organise a 35-minute meeting.
5. How will you notify people about the meeting?
Send out notifications a week before the meeting. People live their lives in weekly cycles; catch their attention before they've filled the following week with other unnecessary meetings.
Always use an electronic, calendar-based invitation, such as Google Calendar or Outlook, so invitees have the option to accept or decline. You should attach the agenda and pre-reading to this meeting invitation.
6. Who will take the minutes?
It seems increasingly common to delegate minute-taking to a meeting attendee rather than having a skilled secretary or minute-taker present. This approach is problematic because you cannot guarantee the person taking the minutes can type fast enough or even has any minute-taking experience. Furthermore, the minute-taker will not have the opportunity to contribute to the meeting as much as other attendees.
In many ways, the minute-taker is the most important person in the room - they are capturing a record of the meeting and actions. Use someone with the necessary skills.
7. Who will chair the meeting?
If you organised the meeting (or someone else organised it for you) let's assume you will act as chairperson or 'chair'. Remember chairing a meeting is a skill - don't assume the most senior person in the room should be the chair; pick the person who will do the best job.
The role of the chair is to take meeting attendees through the agenda and keep everything on track. It sounds old-fashioned to appoint a chair for a meeting, but it is essential.
A good chair will keep an eye on the clock and move the discussion on. They will also reiterate key points and ensure clear action points are in the minutes. The chair controls the meeting and ensures attendees take part in the meeting and relevant decision-making.
If You are Attending a Meeting
1. Is there an agenda?
No one should attend a meeting without an agenda. If there is no agenda, ask for one. You can explain that you wish to prepare for the meeting.
2. Do you need to be there?
Another benefit of having an agenda in advance of the meeting is that you can check you need to be there. If the meeting is about something irrelevant to you, decline.
3. What are your actions?
While a good set of minutes will include your actions, the notes will likely be brief. Take personal notes in the meeting and ask for clarification on deadlines if you are unsure.
What About Online Meetings?
Online meetings are now part of everyday life and should run in the same way as a traditional, in-person meeting - there should still be a chair, minute-taker and agenda.
Online meetings can present more challenges, though. Here are eight tips for running and participating in an effective online meeting:
- If you are the meeting chair, set some ground rules at the start, so attendees know how the meeting will run.
- Mute your microphone when you are not speaking.
- Blur your background or use your software's built-in backdrops (especially if you are working from home).
- Turn your camera on if you can - position your camera so you can make eye contact with it if possible.
- Ensure your room is well-lit.
- Share your screen to make your point if it helps.
- Use the chat function - if you are the meeting chair, keep an eye on the chat. Note that chat access is restricted in some web versions of standard online meeting tools. Check chat accessibility at the start of the meeting.
- Use the meeting tool's 'raise hand' feature if you wish to ask a question.
For many, online meetings are more tiring than in-person meetings - especially for neurodivergent colleagues - so try to keep online meetings short and allow attendees to turn off their cameras if they want or need to.
Over to You
There are, of course, lots of different ways to run a meeting. For example, this article has not covered asynchronous meetings (something I am curious to try). It is, however, a starting point.
Please share your comments below; I'd love to know your biggest frustrations with running or attending meetings and how we can collectively make meetings better.